Thursday, May 15, 2008

Conservative Conservation

"[E]nvironmentalism," says philosopher Roger Scruton, "is the quintessential conservative cause, the most vivid instance in the world as we know it, of that partnership between the dead, the living and the unborn, which Burke defended as the conservative archetype."

Scruton makes three major points to support this declaration. First, environmental devastation often finds its source, not its solution, in large-government policies. His most convincing example is the post-WWII road-building subsidies that made America a nation of suburbs. This mind-bogglingly gigantic--yet simultaneously taken-for-granted--project has shaped American society in profound ways and, it can be argued, often for the worse.

Personally, I find myself even more swayed by the example of light pollution. For what promotes the washing out of our starry skies except the state-sponsored notion that every place where one of its citizen might walk must be equally over-lit? That the poor deserve the luxury of obliterating, like the wealthy and decadent, the natural swaddling of night that returns us, perforce, to our homes and our families? Scruton leads us to ask an overlooked question: Can a liberal state's natural drive for maximal progress coupled with maximal equality do anything but exaggerate harm done by the technological elite?

One can quibble and protest against Scruton's barrage of criticism of "leftists"--I think he characterizes left-environmentalism accurately ("Environmentalism is something you join, and for many young people it has the quasi-redemptive and identity-bestowing character of the twentieth-century revolutions."), but doesn't give its deeper thinkers enough credit for diagnosing some of the pathologies of our age. But Scruton's own diagnosis, outlined in his other two points, is incisive as well: The state (much less any meta-state institution like the U.N.) cannot directly shepherd forth any environmental progress because it has no loyalties to a particular environment. At best it has only cold interests. Protecting national parks is like hoarding a precious jewel; the motivation is fear of losing a resource or source of prestige, or having it monopolized, not love of a place. By banishing residents from such places, traditional conservatives would argue, you banish the love that could protect and nurture it. Instead of inhabitants, you create visitors--or, more descriptively, sightseers--who look, then leave, and rarely love, in any permanent sense.

So, to those two other points, Scruton's solutions: the love of beauty and the love of home. We should be honest and note that concerns of aesthetics and of patriotism have clearly been--if often quietly and subtextually--primarily the purview of a certain brand of (frequently British) traditional conservativism, over and against the progressive utilitarianism and artistic cynicism of the left. But drawing battle lines does little good and, if conservatives' arguments are correct, should not matter because these concerns are ones that all men share by their nature. We may have many cultural confusions about "patriotism," but only the most hardened universalist can feel ambivalent about the street where he grew up or the schools he attended.

Scruton identifies love of beauty and home as those "motives that keep people in real and reciprocal relation with each other, whether here and now, or across the generations." That is, they are human concerns--concerns for that ridge or that pond, as opposed to the state's concern for the integrity of oceanic currents, statistical fish stock levels, or parts per million of some heavy metal.

"Think Globally, Act Locally" goes the slogan, but Scruton here is saying that thinking globally is already a misstep. Certainly environmental problems are often global ones. But how do you motivate anyone to care about a global problem? The unfortunate answer to this question is found in the typical modus operandi of the liberal environmental movement: Tell them that eventually the devastation will reach them; make them feel guilty for their miniscule participation in a massive catastrophe.

The alternative to these appeals to self-preservation are appeals to love and service. The alternative to feelings of guilt are feelings of obligation and duty. It is not true to say that most people are incapable of acting on such impulses, for they act out of love and service everyday in their dealings with family, friends, and neighbors. They act out of duty and obligation in the care they take of their home, their yard or garden, or their school. It's not impossible to "think globally," but in a very real sense, it is impossible to know globally. And if one cannot know something intimately, one cannot love it. We see this in the difference between patriotism and nationalism: One's patriotism can only be extended to those things he is close enough to to know intimately; nationalism appeals to an idea, an artifact of the mind, a unified body--the idealized nation--that isn't in reality unified at all.

If something is to be loved, it doesn't just need to be near, it needs to be concrete. It must be able to evoke our admiration or awe through the senses, not manufacture it in our minds with words or concepts. It must, in short, be beautiful. Here is the value of art, of (to use a less slippery word) craftsmanship: To enhance our environment to be something more lovable, not by painting over or obscuring its natural qualities, but by complementing them. In this notion is highlighted the absurdity of the modern art museum--the place made for art, instead of the place made by and with art. Highlighted as well is the awesome importance of architecture, understood as a discipline of integration and harmonization, not of escapism or novelization, nor of shock and alienation.

Surely any solution to an oncoming environmental disaster is far-fetched and fundamentally desperate. Is shepherding forth a global international technocratic movement to impose a sustainable lifestyle in America, Europe, China, India, etc. any less far-fetched than appealing to individuals' love of their individual surroundings, asking them to change their lives because the changes will bring them back to their homes, out of cars and planes, away from distant workplaces, down from theoretical images of prosperity to concrete visions of beauty? Scruton--and I--think not. "[W]ith really big issues, you need to think small." And smaller is beautifuller.


Zoe said...

I agree that there are powerful conservative arguments in favor of conservation, and I agree that I prefer a more local, concrete, and positive approach than being told my fondness for mangoes in January is the reason for the extinction of life as we know it. I'm still not convinced on your arguments about modern art and architecture, and in some senses, I think trying to knit the disparate parts into a single coherent philosophy is a Herculean task of questionable value--- because I subscribe to one element doesn't mean that it's inconsistent to have an appreciation for another element on which we disagree. But it's interesting thinking and challenging source material, which are the things that I enjoy so much about what you do.

Matt Mullenix said...

A Wendell Berry fan, I suspect!

Bravo, if so. Nice post, either way.